I admit that being a soccer fan in the United States is one of my more unusual interests . In the summer of 2008, when I still lived in Tampa, I actually paid (not very much) to watch the Olympic qualifying that took place there and was one of only a few thousand fans at most to watch the first game, which featured an understrength Cuban squad that went into turtle mode fairly early and still lost by multiple goals. I happen to live in an area that is far more soccer mad than most of the United States, and our soccer stadium has about 10,000 seats, which means that watching soccer here in person is far more expensive and on those grounds far less desirable for me. Even so, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss an event that is happening in the United States that has not reached the attention of the general public. I would like to talk about the 2017 Gold Cup and why it matters.
Every two years, the United States hosts the Gold Cup, which is the regional competition for CONCACAF, the soccer federation for North and Central America and the Caribbean. Although North America is not generally considered a world soccer powerhouse, there are at least a few nations that have a reputation for playing decent soccer–Mexico, the United States, and Costa Rica among them. These are teams that can win enough games to get out of the group stage in international tournaments and on a good year win a game or two in the knockout stage. North America is also known for having a large amount of teams that are not very good at all, though, teams that are not competitive, and this has had a large effect on the way that the continent is viewed overall. North America is a top-heavy continent that has a few very strong teams, a few decent teams, and a large number of teams that are simply not very good. The fact that the United States is considered one of the strong teams despite having a nation that is not particularly passionate about soccer in general is one of the many ironies of soccer in this continent.
So, why is it that a nation that is not particularly soccer mad ends up hosting the continent’s major tournament every two years? A big reason for that is money. Americans may not be all that passionate about soccer, but the United States is the only place where a tournament can be hosted in the continent and expect to earn a great deal of money on a regular basis. Likewise, there are plenty of soccer fans from our minority population, which means that the United States has a less overwhelming home-field advantage than would be the case if the tournament were held anywhere else. The combination of good fields, a diverse fan base, and the possibility for large amounts of money going to the soccer federations of the continent make for a solid set of reasons for the biennial soccer tournament to be held in the United States, even if most Americans have likely never heard of the tournament or know its history.
This year, the tournament runs from July 7th to July 26th, and is held in venues across the United States, with a large concentration of them in Texas, perhaps unsurprisingly given the demographics of soccer fandom in the United States. There are several ways that teams qualify for the tournament that are all fairly typical of the way soccer is run. All three North American soccer nations automatically qualify for the tournament–the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Mexico is unsurprisingly the top nation in the tournament’s history and equally unsurprising the United States is second in tournament wins. Canada is more or less happy to be there every year and rarely gets in the top half of its group. Four teams qualify from a smaller biennial regional cup, the Copa Centroamerica, and this year the top four teams from that competition were Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, unsurprisingly the top four teams in Central America. Four more teams qualify from the biennial Caribbean cup, and here there were some surprises among the top four teams of Curaçao (!), Martinique (!!), French Guiana (!!!), and Jamaica. How Jamaica only ended up as the fourth best team while Trinidad and Tobago did not end up among the top four is a bit of a mystery given that the Caribbean is by far the weakest region within North America when it comes to soccer. Nicaragua qualified in a fairly standard soccer format by winning the playoff against the 5th best Caribbean team, Haiti.
These twelve teams will play in three groups, and the top eight teams will play a knockout format until a winner is determined. Mexico would be the prohibitive favorite, but this year Mexico will have played in the Confederation Cup until only a few days before the tournament begins, meaning that Mexico will likely be a bit more tired than the other teams from the continent. Whether or not this means Mexico’s form will suffer as a result remains to be seen. The prize for winning the Gold Cup is a spot in the playoff for the quadrennial Confederations Cup, where every four years on the year before the World Cup final a host nation (usually, but not always, the host of the next year’s World Cup), the previous World Cup winner, and the six winners of the continental federations (Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania) engage in a competition that is going on right now as I write, although it will be over by the time this entry is posted. The Confederations Cup is one of the ways a nation gains a higher profile within the world of soccer, and it should come as little surprise that the United States and Mexico are the two North American nations that have done the best there. If the same team wins both of the Gold Cup tournaments during the time frame of the Confederations Cup, they automatically qualify.
So, why should you care about this tournament, especially if you are an American with only a mild interest at best about soccer. Well, for one, soccer is one of the more nationalistic sports that exist. The organization of soccer and its worldwide appeal is such that almost every nation or dependency that exists cares about the sport at least somewhat and tends to view winning in the sport as a matter of national pride. The United States, for all of our nationalistic fervor, is one of the few nations that is not particularly passionate about the sport, and even with this lack of passion soccer is still a sport the United States happens to be good at, one of the top twenty or so nations in the world in fact. The rest of the world, in fact, probably finds it immensely irritating that the United States is pretty good at a sport that we don’t really care about at all, and that would be lucky to be in the top 5 or even 10 sports in our country. For that reason alone it is worth paying attention to soccer at least once in a while, especially since this year the United States has a reasonably good chance of winning a well-regarded continental cup.
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